Rooted in legacy learnings

By Shalin Maria Lawrence| Express News Service | Published: 20th April 2021 05:32 AM
Shalin & her family at Christ the King church.

CHENNAI: I was busy promoting my two new books at the Chennai book fair. They were bestsellers, positive reviews were pouring in and I was filled with so much pride and a sense of achievement. I was on TV, talking about how hard it is for a Dalit woman to be a writer in the 21st Century.

Then, at the same moment, I received a call from a man who introduced himself as a person from a village near Vandavasi called Nelliyaankulam. He was organising an event commemorating Dr Ambedkar’s role in the emancipation of Dalit women, on the leader’s death anniversary. He invited me to be a guest.

“I don’t even know that village you are referring to. I cannot make it as there are only a few days left for the book fair to get over and I really can’t miss the opportunity to promote the books. I’m really sorry, thozhar,” I said.“Thozhar, please consider. This is your grandmom’s village, right? It would be great if you can be a part of the programme.”

I was taken aback. How did this guy know that? Even I had forgotten that my late paternal grandmother came from a village in Vandavasi. All my grandparents were aboriginals of Madras, except for my dad’s mother who was from this village in Vandavasi, which she rarely visited or spoke about. She had been a busy school teacher in a government-aided school in Chennai. Post-retirement, she was diagnosed with cancer and her last days were spent in Chennai battling the disease until it claimed her. She never returned to her village. “I have not shared this anywhere,” I pointed out.

“Thozhar, the whole village knows you; we have seen you on TV and we identified you with your surname and face. You are a carbon copy of your grandmother.” That sounded intense. I was pleasantly surprised at the way genetics work. Now, he’d placed the best bet before me and I became curious to know my roots; so, I agreed to it. My parents were thrilled to hear this and joined me on the trip. Even my father has never visited his mother’s native. 

On January 15, we headed towards the village. And it was a journey of a lifetime. This village is around 130 kilometres from Chennai and 30 kilometres from Melmaruvathur. The ride from Melmaruvathur turned out to be horrendous. It was already dark; there were no proper roads or road lights. There were swamps all through the way and a single mistake could have landed us into one. Google Maps certainly did not help and we had to stop at multiple places to enquire about the route. We only reached the village when the event was already half way through. 

When the organisers greeted me, I apologised and blamed the roads. I spoke about the need for women to embrace Ambedkar’s teachings to empower themselves and the society; I also spoke about breaking the caste shackles as well as fighting against patriarchy within their families. This infuriated a few men and they started to shout at me, using unparliamentary words. Immeditaly, the Dalit women in the crowd — especially the older women — started to argue with the men, asked them to apologise and got into a fight just for my sake.

Then, one of them said, “Amma, these men are the reason we are still in poverty and our children have not progressed. We have been fighting for ages against these men who are misogynistic and dominant. We want our children to fight against this. You please talk. We want to hear you talk.” I cannot put into words how moved I was with this. This is women helping women. I always had this saviour complex of “Oh I’m going to empower Dalit women”. But, the truth is very different. Dalit women are not weak. They do not need saviours.They can save themselves.

So, I controlled my tears, took the mic and started to speak. Why should I feel scared? I have my women to protect me.Post-event, the organisers promised to take me to the place where my grandmother hailed from. Again, it was a difficult drive. We arrived at a 134-year-old church called Christ the King in the centre of the village.

The church was locked but, in the distance, we could see the Parish Priest’s house. Without any inhibition, we knocked on his door at midnight. The priest was clearly puzzled and surprised to find strange faces at that time of the night.

“Hello Father, we are tracing our grandmother. Her name was Sophia and her father’s name was Sipoy Anthony,” I said.
“Sophia the teacher, right?”
“Yes Father! You know her?”
“Oh yes ...The whole village knows the family’s history. This is her parish. Her family used to own a small agricultural land in the area, she was the only child to her parents. She was educated in the church’s primary school; later, her father sold the land and livestock, and with that money, educated her and sent her for teacher’s training in Madras. Are you aware that she was the first female teacher from Vandavasi Taluk and perhaps the first Dalit woman teacher from Tiruvannamalai district itself? The whole village is proud of her!” he said.

I was astounded. My father was in tears. He loved his mother so much but never knew her story. The priest, then, took us to the church. We looked around the colonial structure that had been witness to such profound history. It was surreal. We thanked the priest, got his blessings in the most Tamil catholic way possible and headed back to Chennai.

We drove through the same bad roads. The car became wobbly again. But, this time, I felt happy driving through the same way that my grandmother had taken to walk to Madras in the early 1940s. She would have not had comfortable slippers nor the right clothes to protect herself from the dust and heat. Her journey would have been difficult and rough. But I’m sure that she never complained. The caste discrimination, the whole village gossiping about her attempt to change gender norms and challenge caste barriers. “Prachikku enna teachar uthiyogam vendi irukku?” I could never imagine doing what she has done. 

Irrespective of her achievement she never called herself a feminist. On her retirement day, there was this grand function but nobody spoke about her history as a Dalit woman.This disturbed me.After reaching home, lying in bed, I realised whatever I have achieved so far with the privilege I carry is miniscule when compared to the gigantic single step taken by this marginalised, rural Dalit woman. Feminism talks about equality but not all feminists are equal. Even though marginalised, Dalit women do not declare themselves as feminists; they are far more resilient than most of us out here who claim to be progressive. They have battled for even the small things in life. Their story is big.

In India, it is a great thing to be the “the first woman”. But, what is greater is being “the first Dalit woman”. As far for my grandmom, I want her to be known as the “first Dalit woman teacher from Vandavasi”. 

To the VIllage

This village (Nelliyaankulam) was around 130 km from Chennai and 30 km from Melmaruvathur. The ride from Melmaruvathur turned out to be horrendous. It was already dark; there were no proper roads or road lights. 

The author is a Dalit activist and writer with two books to her name. She is a feminist who is vocal about the intersectionality of caste and gender and the need for feminism to address this.

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